Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Vanity Fair, by William MakepeaceThackeray

Vanity Fair is one of the many classics I did not manage to read in my first 65 years. Unfortunately, it's not one of the classics that, when I finally read it, I thought, "Why didn't I read this sooner?" Instead, my main reaction was, "Why did Thackeray think this book needed to be 800 pages?"

Vanity Fair begins with two young women leaving school in early 19th-century England. Amelia Sedley is the daughter of a well-to-do businessman; she is preparing to marry the young man she has been engaged to for years. Becky Sharp is from a much sketchier background, and she is bound for a job as governess with the wealthy Crawley family. The two represent what seem to be the categories of people into which Thackeray divides the English: Amelia represents the good but simple-minded while Becky represents those out for the main chance (although she is actually considerably smarter than most of the people in this group, as depicted by Thackeray).

Over the course of 20+ years, both women enter into marriages that cause disruptions in their husbands' families; but Amelia is devoted to her husband while Becky seems to despise hers. Both have sons, but Amelia is besotted with her son while Becky barely shows any interest in hers.Thackeray details their stories--with very little apparent sympathy for either--and those of a substantial number of other of the wealthy British. The satire is at first amusing, but it becomes quite tedious no more than half way into the book.

I know from reading a Jane Smiley review of Vanity Fair that it is not "possible to understand Vanity Fair without acknowledging Thackeray's extensive familiarity with French literature." So perhaps my boredom is caused by my nonexistent familiarity with French literature. Nonetheless, I am thinking of proposing a page limit for all satirical novels--say, 300-350, less if possible.

Favorite passages:
I think I could be a good woman if I had 5000 a year.

If a man's character is to be abused, say what you will, there's nobody like a relative to do the business.

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